Several months ago I was invited to participate on a committee for something called COCOA, which endeavors to create a catch-all way for authors and other book copyright holders to specify how much of their work they want have accessible for viewing through services like Amazon or the nascent Google Print service; a copyright holder would specify once what amount of the work would be viewable online and the various online services that would show the text would use that as a guide. I noted at the time I was unlikely to be actively involved in the effort but that I would be happy to be an observer to the process.
Now it’s out and available for perusal, for those of you who are interested in that thing. I note my minimal involvement largely to point out that realistically I cannot share in any praise or blame (depending on one’s point of view) for this particular implementation. The reaction is not surprisingly varied; some people think it’s idiotic, while others are more cautiously approving.
My personal opinion shades toward the latter than the former. I don’t think there’s any reasonable copyright bar to merely entering a work into a database, ala Google Print, but I think it’s also reasonable that once it’s in the database, the copyright holder may choose to specify restrictions on its online display, and if there’s a way to specify it that so the copyright holder only has to do it once, rather than for every single database onto which the work is uploaded, well, why not. As a copyright holder, it would make my life easier. The natural and logical objection here is that book copyright holders don’t have a similar right to control access to their work in other settings, like a bookstore. But I don’t know about that; off the top of my head I can think of a couple of sealed books I’ve seen in a bookstore, most notably The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. So it’s possible, it’s just not usual. Limiting access to written work online is no more controversial in my opinion than offering 30-second samples of songs.
However, I don’t buy albums by listening to 30-second samples of songs, and I very rarely buy sealed books in a bookstore (I did buy the cartoon collection, but in that particular case I had an excellent idea what I was buying). As a theoretical manner I support the right of copyright holders to control how much of their work is displayed online. As a practical matter I think you’re something of an idiot if you don’t allow for full and robust access to your work online, since the major problem for the vast majority of writers including myself is obscurity, not piracy. I’ve discussed the reasons for this before, so there’s no point in blathering about it again in detail here.
I will say that from an entirely mercenary point of view I am always delighted when I hear other authors getting vaporous about the threat of online piracy. That means they are unlikely to allow any useful amount of their work to be shown online, which means that they won’t have access to the same massive pool of potential buyers that I will. That’s more for me. I wouldn’t do anything to actively sabotage the career of another writer, but if they want to sabotage themselves, well, you know. Far be it from me to stop them.
In any event. If you’re a writer or otherwise interested in copyright issues, take a look at the COCOA site. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think.